Road to peace in north isn’t through ‘defence colonies’

By Arjun Guneratne, US

This is a response to Dr. Susantha Goonatilake’s article titled “After the victory: Full-scale development in the North but no racist appeasement” (The Sunday Times, January 18).

I am especially concerned about the writer’s views on how peace should be secured once the fighting stops. If Dr. Goonatilake’s views were used as the basis for formulating a national policy for post-war reconstruction in the North, Sri Lanka will completely miss the bus in its attempts to bring about a durable peace.

Dr. Goonatilake proposes setting up “defence colonies”, comprising ex-personnel from the armed forces, across the whole of the North: “Retired husband and wife ex-employees of the armed forces,” Dr. Goonatilake writes, “should be settled in such strategic settlements.” The purpose of these colonies would be to “deter future attempts” (presumably attempts at secession by the people who live in these areas).
The fall of Tiger sea base in Chalai

The writer clearly does not see the Tamil people as having the same rights and privileges as other citizens of Sri Lanka; he likens the Tamil people to aliens and invaders when he writes: “It was a victory reminiscent of Dutugemunu who, over 2,100 years ago, as a child in the deep South described the helplessness of being pushed into the country’s extreme corner by a Tamil invader.”Prabhakaran and his followers may have prosecuted their struggle with viciousness and ultimately strategic stupidity (the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi is perhaps the best example of such stupidity), but the LTTE are not alien invaders; they are Sri Lanka citizens who, for reasons that need not be repeated here, became deeply and irrevocably alienated from the Sri Lanka state.

Instead of examining the reasons for that alienation and thinking about ways to address the issues that led to war so that all Sri Lankans have an equal stake in a society based on justice and the rule of law, and the country has in place a system that meets the legitimate aspirations of all its people, including the right to liberty, happiness, and dignity (currently denied to people in the North and East and increasingly constrained for people elsewhere in the island), Dr. Goonatilake advocates an iron-fisted post-war policy of internal colonialism.

As if it were not bad enough that the country is staggering under the weight of a grave economic crisis, in large part caused by this war, the writer advocates further expansion of the military after the war. “Our forces should be further strengthened to deter any future attempts,” says he.

What about our universities? Our schools? Our health-care system? Our infrastructure? No reasonable person will disagree when Dr. Goonatilake asserts the right of any Sri Lankan to live anywhere he or she might please on the island. What is objectionable, however, is the writer’s proposal that state-sponsored militarised settlements be established in the North. These settlements will inevitably be seen by the local people for what they are: an instrument of state repression.

Coercion only engenders resistance; one need only look at Israel’s occupation of Palestine to see this at work. Israel, a much stronger and wealthier society than Sri Lanka, has not been able, despite all the resources at its command and the indiscriminate exercise of an enormous capacity for violence, to crush the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Rather than bringing about peace, “defence colonies” will only serve as a permanent reminder to the people in the North of everything they despise about the Sri Lankan state, and this will lead to more resistance and revolt. Such a policy contradicts Dr. Goonatilake’s rhetorical assertion that “absolute and full equality and dignity” should prevail “in the areas won.”

The most important geopolitical factor that shapes events in Sri Lanka is India and Indian public opinion, especially in Tamil Nadu, where the hostility to the LTTE generated by the murder of Rajiv Gandhi has been replaced by anguish and anger over the suffering of the Wanni people, much of it directed against the Sri Lankan government. The attitude of that government has not helped it win many hearts and minds outside Sri Lanka (the same is true of the LTTE, but we should hold governments to a higher standard).

If Prabhakaran had played his hand differently during the 1980s, if he had been a different kind of leader (read: less of a megalomaniac), and, most of all, if he had not ordered the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, the outcome for his movement might have been very different.

The fact that India, which helped to shape the Tigers into a formidable military force, sided decisively with the Sri Lanka government in this war is most assuredly due to the hand that Prabhakaran did play; India, after all has a score to settle with the LTTE leader.

Prabhakaran and the LTTE may now be about to vanish into the pages of history. But if so, with them will also vanish a major constraint on the manner in which India, and indeed the world’s powers, choose to involve themselves in Sri Lanka’s affairs. The Tamil people have legitimate grievances, and these must be resolved politically through negotiation. If repression of the sort suggested by Dr. Goonatilake’s article leads to more violence in the future, India – under the pressure of public opinion in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, and especially if a BJP government is in power – might choose to impose a Cyprus-type solution on Sri Lanka, which our neighbour has the capacity to do, and thereby create a client statelet in the North beholden to India.

The state has prevailed over the LTTE because the world community concluded that the LTTE was indeed a terrorist organisation and an obstacle to peace, rather than a partner in achieving it .
Should the Sri Lankan state pursue a policy of internal colonialism and repression of its minorities, and should this lead to another revolt in the future, Dr. Goonatilake and those who share his views should not assume that the international community will hold to the same view of whatever organisation emerges among the Tamils to prosecute that struggle.

That is the context of the military victory the state has won over the LTTE. To win peace will take statesmanship and an unwavering commitment to democracy in the halls of Sri Jayawardenapura. Alas, neither of these goals seems likely.

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